Tag Archives: recovery

StayHomeWriMo, Day 6!!!

Writing prompt: Write a ghost story.

When the F train to Brooklyn pulls up after a long day of dog walking, I wait by the last car where I am most likely to get a seat. I slip inside and drop onto the middle of a bench, take my bag off my shoulder, and rest it in my lap. At the very last second before the doors slip shut, a man so tall his head almost hits the top of the door opening, forces his way inside. His dreads drape in a long, knotted mess against his stained white shirt and low hanging jeans. He leans against the doors on the opposite side of the car, and as we start moving he starts muttering. I can’t make out a lot of the words, but as he gradually increases his volume to scream territory, phrases like white privilege and bloody racists come through. Another day in Manhattan, another person going crazy on the train; whatever good or valid points he may have made are lost in his screams. I reach into my bag to pull out my headphones without looking at him, and plug them into my cell phone before popping the buds into my ears.

When I look up again, the man is flying across the train car. He grabs my wrist and yanks my phone out of my hand so abruptly that the headphone cord comes out of the jack. My phone goes flying into the window on the opposite side of the car, right between two bystanders’ heads. The crazy is screaming at me, calling me a racist bitch, and then the man next to me stands up and punches him in the face so hard that the crazy goes spinning back into the pole in the middle of the aisle and crumples to the floor. 

Someone hands me my poor cracked phone as the train pulls into the next station. I pull the earbuds out of my ears and shove them into my purse as I explode out the door the instant it opens. I am not afraid of the crazy; I see crazies every day, though not usually to this extent. I am afraid of what the crazy reminds me of, of the path my brain will take. 

That’s what PTSD is. The human brain is made up of tons of different neural networks. We strengthen the connections between neurons when we learn to do something. When a person is learning how to ride a bike, a neural pathway forms that strengthens every time a person correctly completes the action of bicycling. If the person never has the desire to ride a bike, that neural pathway is not formed because the neurons never receive direction to connect. And if a person who rode a bike as a child doesn’t ride a bike for many years, the neural pathway they made when riding will slowly fade away. But neural pathways don’t form just for happy things like childhood bike riding. They also form from unhappy things. A psychologist named Martin Seligman coined the term “learned helplessness” after his experimentation on dogs. He locked dogs in kennels with no way out and shocked them again and again. The dogs would try to escape, throwing themselves against the sides of the kennel and biting at the metal. But once they figured out there was no escape, the dogs would simply lie down and take the shocks. Even after Seligman opened the kennel so they could walk out, the dogs continued to take the shocks. The neural pathways formed by the repeated electrocution taught the dogs there was no way out. There are chemicals formed inside the neurons during adverse experiences that aren’t formed during happy ones; these chemicals are what make the negative memories last longer. The neural pathways formed by negative memories are stronger and harder to break. 

Post traumatic stress disorder is a name for the formation of a negative neural pathway (or pathways) caused by exposure to something from the past. For instance, there are certain things that trigger the feeling like someone or something is squeezing the inside of the chest. My chest. It’s difficult for me to explain PTSD to people outside of it. Really, it’s my brain being scared. My neural pathways sending me into fight or flight that generally transports me to somewhere other than where the “fight” occurred. I think of my brain as a bit of a firecracker. There is only so long that my fuse can burn before it blows up. Over time, I have grown good at recognizing the signs of an impending blow-up in enough time to escape the situation.

As a result, I have a lot of good days. 

On this day in Brooklyn, however, the bench is cold. I’m wearing blue jeans, and my work hoodie, and my pink sneakers, and my hair is red. These are the things I know, but there is a lot I don’t know. For instance, how long I’ve been here, on the bench. I don’t know that. My arms are covered in goosebumps, and I’m shivering, my teeth clattering and my hands shaking. I am not sitting in the sun. I don’t know why. 

The wind makes my tears sting. I’m crying. When did I start crying? It’s cold. My brain hurts, and I’m scared I’m losing my mind. It doesn’t hurt that I’m scared; it hurts more that I’m not sure why, that I can’t pinpoint whether I am just afraid or if I will always be that way or if it is because there was a man on the F train that I thought might kill me. 

Today is not a good day. 

There are two men throwing a frisbee in the park across the street from where I sit. Brooklyn Bridge Park. I’m in DUMBO. When B and I first got married, we played disc golf together back in Wisconsin. I drove my car; his was at the mechanic. We parked and played through the course, only to come back and find I’d left the lights on in the car. I got in so much trouble for that one.

I’m not afraid today in Brooklyn because of the crazy man on the F train. I’m afraid because of what he represents, because of the things he made me remember, because of the time that I lost walking away from the train. I tell myself not to be scared. 

There is something to be said about surviving. About recovery. It’s never easy. When you’ve told everyone that you’re okay but you still wear your heart on your sleeve, it crushes way too easily under the crazies on the subway. When you think things are going well, when you get to that point where there is a year worth of okay days, the one that is not okay is devastating. I want to be the strong woman, the one that is okay, the one people are proud of. The one that isn’t a disappointment. 

I cry. I cry because I am done with all of this. I am finished with being hurt and I am finished with being scared and I am finished with all of it. I can never get back what was taken from me and I will never again be who I was. But I am in New York City. I am on a bench that is cold, wearing blue jeans and my work sweatshirt and my sadly hopeful pink sneakers and my hair is red. 

And tomorrow is another day.

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Your Body

Your body is a temple.

It’s one of the first tenets of eating disorder treatment. Your body is a god damn motherfucking temple. You need to treat it well; you need to feed it so it can function to its fullest potential. You need to take care of it. Your body does not take care of you. Why would you take care of your body? You betrayed your body.

Your body betrayed you.

There’s no connection, between you and your body. Why would there be? It does not belong to you. It never did. It was never yours. It is a thing that gets you from point a to point b and back again, a thing that allows you to work, to exist. But it’s not yours. Your body is everywhere and anywhere and some days you hate it so much that you can’t sit with it, you can’t be comfortable in it. You run and you run, day in, day out, but you cannot shed it. You cannot have a new body. You can’t have a body that belongs to you. This body is not yours. It is not yours.

Whose is it, exactly? 

Your body belongs to the men who took you. You could never control that, them, it. You could never control anything. They still have your body. You’re a ghost; you’re a shell; you exist; you do not really exist. You are a soul without a home.

Your body is a placeholder.

You can’t get out of yourself. You can’t move. You are stuck here. Your body is not yours; it’s disgusting, the idea of so many others inside it. You were weak; your body was is weak. You are your body; you aren’t your body. You cannot make it yours when what was yours is forever altered. Destroyed. Dirty. You are dirty. And you can’t run away because you’re trapped inside this body that is not yours, that will never be yours. You scrub and you can’t get it off. You’re doing okay, but then you’re not. You will always go back. You cannot get rid of it, this body, this disgusting body. 

Your body will never be clean.

You close your body off to a world that doesn’t want it. You shut it down, slowly, line by line, item by item, piece by piece. You can’t swallow; you can’t breathe. You can’t take care of a temple that belongs to someone else. You could burn this all down and not look back. Your body is a map that you can’t change, with too many stories to tell. Stories of other people. Stories that hurt, that fester, that creep up on you when you don’t expect it. Your heart is vacant. You cannot rebuild it. You can give it to other people, but not yourself. 

All your body tried to do was exist.

Your body is you. You are your body; you’re not your body because it will never be yours. You don’t want to be your body, not this body, not this. You stomp it down and you play at existence, and when you’re hurting you push it away and you wish that it would implode. You cannot pretend it doesn’t hurt anymore. You cannot meet everybody’s expectations. You cannot be the person that they want you to be, that they need you to be, when your body is not yours, not really, not ever. 

Your body is ravaged.

You can label, body part by body part, the places that were touched, changed. Destroyed. You can give some a name, others you can’t. You can list all of the ways your body failed you because it’s easier than talking about how you failed your body. It wasn’t you that let this happen. It was your body. You need something to hate. It can’t be you. It has to be the body. It has to be. This hurts too much to think about. You want to hold on, to be better, to not have this body, not this one, give you something different, something else, anything else. You want to be better. You want to understand, but you don’t know how. You want to grab the life ring, but you don’t know how. You can’t control your body anymore than you can control what happened to it, because you don’t know how. You don’t know the why of everything, the reason, and you need that. You need that to understand your body. You want to understand your body, but you also don’t. 

Your body is a horror show on display for everyone to see.

You want someone to tell you that it’s okay. That it wasn’t your fault. To keep telling you, reminding you, every day, because you forget, a lot, because you have to live in this body that carries the weight of every single one of those faults. You are constantly reminded of everything you your body did. You need all of this to go away. Your honesty is all you have. The devastation that you will never fit the normal bounds of living or have a body not exploited, a body not stained with the traces of every hand that ever touched it that wasn’t yours. You do not stain your own body. No, no. You do not touch it. You. Do. Not. Touch. It. If you leave it, maybe, the stain will fade. 

No more dirt. No more map. No more stains.

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To Infinity and Beyond

I think my notions of who I’m supposed to be are too grand. This weird body quest of mine, part infinity because I have officially lost count (maybe 8?) continues…maybe as far as it can go in its current form. I’m not sure. I can’t tell if I’m just sad that today hurt or if I’ve really gone as far as I can go.

I got kicked by another dancer in class today. Hard. It will leave a lovely bruise to remind me for at least the next week of that moment when I thought “well what am I doing wrong that I got kicked?” Life lesson number 999,999: I didn’t do the kicking; the other dancer wasn’t watching where she was going. But it was automatically me that was wrong, at least in my head, and I think that’s the theme song of my life. It’s not you, it’s me. It’s always me.

I hold on to things too tightly–not a musing, but a fact. I hold on too tightly and I can’t let go. I see why my therapist thinks pole dancing class is the best thing ever for me now, louder than ever. We worked on a wrist sit up in the air today and I couldn’t even focus on doing it precisely right (my general MO for all things pole) because I was too busy worrying I might plummet to my death. The teacher told me to lean and my internal dialogue kept saying “you want me to lean IN to the fall feeling??” along with a few choice swear words. I can’t do that. That’s giving up control. I don’t fly that way. Therefore I don’t fly at all. If I could let myself go, even just a little, it would be so much easier. But I don’t know how. I’m too regimented, too set in it all being perfect.

Do I want to fly? Fuck yes I do. Do I accept the fact I won’t? Should I? The voice in my head screams that I’m a fat ugly bitch, and I try not to listen most days, but today it’s hard. Today I cried on the train on the way home because I felt like I wasn’t good enough, because class went too fast like it always does at this new level–too much choreography, too many steps, not enough room in my head to hold it all for the five seconds it take to replicate it when that voice is too damn loud–and I couldn’t keep up. And every time I fall behind I hear that I’m not good enough. Every time.

His voice. Not mine. And I can’t for the life of me figure out why it’s still there. Why he appears in this life I’ve built now, so far beyond him. Why he permeates everything.

I write this not in search of a pity party, but rather to share that it’s not all flowers and unicorns all the time, yet I still get up and try again. I write this to remind myself that I’ll get up and try again. My bruised feet, however, may have something to say about that…

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PTSD: The Ultimate Bitch—or, My Body Quest Continued

When I was in sixth grade, my school did a drama production that was a hodge-podge of many different productions. It was my first experience in drama, one I never even intended to audition for, and it was a blast. Minus one number. I don’t remember the song anymore, but I remember we were scientists in white lab coats and there was a modicum of flirting involved. It was the most frustrating experience at the time, because I didn’t know how to use my body that way. I remember the confusion that flooded me with the directions we were given. You want me to toss my hair? Bend and snap? What?? I wasn’t more than twelve (is that how old sixth graders are??) but I already knew I didn’t want my body to be on display. I already knew my body was an object to be used, that I didn’t own it, that I never would, and to act that way would illustrate some connection to my body that I absolutely did not feel.

To this day, whenever I watch the VHS tape of that number and I can’t help but cringe at how awkward I am. I never learned these skills, and I’m almost 35 now. I learned different skills–how to cover a bruise; how to placate an angry man; how to pretend I liked sex until I didn’t care enough to even pretend anymore. He took, and he took, and he took, like so many before him had, and sometimes I gave because that was what I was supposed to do, and sometimes I didn’t, because that was just the way it was.

Sit down. Be quiet. Do what you’re told.

I don’t know what it’s like to enjoy being touched. I hate being touched. I don’t know how to display my body, and I don’t want to. And I hate projecting an aura that says I may want that. I don’t do sexy.

It has always been important to me to do the right thing, perfectly, the first time. This bleeds into everything I do. I don’t share my first book with anyone because it’s not perfect. I’ve struggled with submitting writing work and missed deadlines because I can’t get the words just so. I show up to all of my clients at the precise time I am expected even though I have an arrival window. I wear clothes that disguise my body and its myriad of imperfections 99 percent of the time. I don’t do things where people can see if I’m not confident I can do them correctly. Hell, I don’t do those things where even only I can see. They taught me my body was a temple, but they didn’t teach me how to use it, how to worship it. They didn’t teach me how to own myself. After all these years, I am still owned by the world around me and how I appear within and to that world, and it’s scary to think of things being any other way.

Last night was round four of this weird quest I’m on to get in touch with my body. Pole class, but with a different instructor. A man. I worried it was a mistake signing up, but I let my therapist push me. I found myself very up in my head about it once in the studio. He was very sexual, more so than the usual teacher we’ve taken class from. And it caused a fairly immediate shutdown in my brain because I’m not that. At all. His way of teaching was so different from the first instructor we had, as were his expectations. I couldn’t do the things he could; I couldn’t make my body move and look that way, and I knew it. He came up behind me at one point to give me a spot, and I was very much done after that, at one point even uttering that I wanted to leave the studio. I knew then he was watching me, and that the more mistakes I made, the closer he would get–and he did. It got to the point where I didn’t want to take the pole when it was my turn; I scoped the room out to see where he was and would do a single sweep before hopping off in the hopes he would not approach.

My head told me my body is not mine. It’s everyone else’s. To be looked at. Gawked at? Used. My head told me I am incapable of executing any move that might look good or beautiful. Elegant? Worth looking at. My head told me I could never put myself on display, that that would give too much of what’s left of me away. My heart cried as that old tape wound its way through my brain of the same insults I had learned from the negative people I had in my life, and I couldn’t do a single thing on that pole without imagining everyone looking at me. He told the entire class that we could never bail, to always look like ‘we meant to do that,’ to always end with our sexy push-up (which, might I add, I still have not mastered). But I did bail. I quit without finishing move sets. I walked away after every skill to stand in the corner.

I turned to the wall and I almost started to literally tear up right there in the studio. And in those 90 minutes, I ruined a new hobby I’d just started to really enjoy. I didn’t thank him as we left. I didn’t say goodbye. I’m pretty sure he told me to smile and I wanted to smack him because I didn’t feel like smiling in the slightest.

PTSD is a bitch. But it’s more than just that. It’s a lifetime of habits, of thought patterns about myself, that I am worried I’m too old now to change. I’m worried it’s too late.

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Life Update

One year ago today I had a day that changed the course of my life. I mean, if we’re being real, I’ve had one hell of a YEAR. But we aren’t talking about that today. We’re talking about a dog.

One year ago, I was mauled by a client’s dog. Really no other way to put that. You can’t make being used as a dog chew toy sound nice. And quite honestly, as angry as I was at the rescue, it was largely my fault. I touched the big scary crate the dog broke out of. I should not have done that; I should not have gone to where the dog broke out of. I know that now. I didn’t then.

I walked away that day with a torn up coat, shredded jeans, a bloody leg and back, and a massively bruised dignity. It’s still bruised. I don’t like when dogs I don’t know run at me. I try to avoid situations where there’s potential for a bite to occur. I used to have a passion for working with dogs labeled aggressive and I don’t have that anymore.

But what I will say for that day is that it woke me up. The idea that that dog had me so firmly I could have died if I hadn’t gotten out of the apartment…it was the catalyst to many things.

I was wallowing in the past. So I got a brilliant therapist who I have an amazing rapport with. I’ve done things with her that I never would have thought possible.

I was fully immersing myself in a career that wasn’t going to get me anywhere further. So I began to write, in earnest. More than I’ve ever written, which says a lot. I sent out essays. I got published a few times. I finished a second book. I’ve been more honest in my writing, but scared to share that here.

I was not happy with my life. So I began to change it. And I’m still not happy with it, but I am making strides towards where I’d like to be.

I have new goals now. I’d like to publish more. I’d like to change my career slightly. Own my own business maybe. Still with dogs, but more training. I’m most interested in service dogs right now, specifically psychiatric service animals. The real kind, not the fake I want to bring my dog on a plane kind. I might not know how to start a business completely on my own, but what I learned this year is that I can, if I so choose.

I came to New York City for grad school, and I love this city more than anything. I have no desire to leave it. But grad school cost me a huge portion of myself at a time when I’d barely begun to get to know who I truly was. I forgot what I was really all about. And I’m finding that out again. I’m a writer first. An activist. A speaker, even though it scares the shit out of me. I love dogs. I want to help people.

I want to do for other people what’s been done for me.

So one year ago, I got mauled by a dog. And I woke up.

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The Next Woman

Dear A,

You don’t know me. I don’t know you. I’ve looked you up online, of course. Who wouldn’t in my position? I wondered what it was about you. Were you prettier? Smarter? Better in some way I couldn’t see? Or was it that you were available? I’m not. Not anymore.

I wonder if you’ve looked me up too. I would, in your position. I’d want to know the crazy I came after if I was you. But note, I’m not crazy. He just likes to think I am.

You’re not either.

I watched an episode of a tv show last week where a woman had to deal with the fact that her rapist raped another woman after she didn’t report him. Silence is more comfortable, sure, but it comes with its own set of ramifications and that is one. You don’t know who will come after you. You don’t know who else will get hurt.

I didn’t think about the possibility of you at all. Not until I saw you that day in Subway so many years ago, holding his hand, waiting in line to get a sandwich like it was any other day. I realized then what I had done. I’d spent my entire life thinking about others before myself, but I never thought about you. And I’m sorry.

I considered emailing you. It would have been easy, what with your contact info on the website, to send you a message and tell you to drop his hand. To run. Now. I never did. It’s a few years later now and I saw this tv show and watched this character cry for the thing she did that was both her fault and not at all her fault in the same breath. And I wanted to cry for you. But I didn’t, because secretly I’m glad it’s not me. And I’m sorry for that too.

See, I have power now. I didn’t want to give that up. I didn’t then, and I don’t now. I hope you understand. I didn’t set out to hurt you. I honestly just never considered you.

Stay safe. Watch for the ticks. When he pushes his glasses up his nose and turns away for a beat before suddenly turning back. When he sits back in his desk chair and crosses his arms over his chest by spinning around. When he leans against the doorframe/wall/counter just a hair too close to you so that you feel his breath on your neck. When he takes one too many beats to stare out the window. When you ask him a question and he closes his eyes before answering. Watch for these things. Watch for more things, because I’ve begun the process of forgetting and I know there are more.

If he ever brings you flowers, writes you a sappy love note in the most ridiculously cheesy romantic card ever, think twice about why.

And remember that this is him. Always him, and never you.

Never apologize.

And please tell him I’m still writing, and I’m coming for him.

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The Quiet Game

I started playing the quiet game when I was really young. I remember this one way I used to play where I would ride my bike up and down the sidewalk in front of my grandma’s apartment building and pretend the bike was a horse. The handlebars were the reins; the seat was the saddle. I’d had my first taste of riding real horses that summer I think, and I was greatly disappointed I couldn’t ride them every single day. So I made it work with what I had.

The point of the quiet game was, obviously, to be quiet. It was a silent purple and pink horse, probably a unicorn based off my knowledge of my obsessions at that age. I was a silent rider.

There were other variations of the quiet game. Sometimes I made up imaginary friends as I lay on my bed with hands on my chest and my eyes closed in the posture of a corpse, characters with awful lives that I would then write stories about. Sometimes I played the organ with headphones in and mouthed the words to songs. Most of the time I just read books.

I taught myself to talk when necessary, and it was hard because I wanted to talk all the time back then. But it wasn’t always right. That was a painful lesson to learn. There were some things not meant to be spoken out loud. I had to swallow them. I had to be quiet.

The quiet game proved useful in adulthood. Our marriage counselor told us to “never let the sun set” on our anger, so every night my then-husband would spend his traditional twenty minutes in the bathroom doing skincare and teeth cleaning before getting into bed and waiting, quietly. He too played the quiet game, only he played it differently. He played with expectations. I played for protection.

“I’m sorry,” I told him automatically, every single night. I knew what he wanted. I knew what would happen if I didn’t say it.

“Good,” he would smile, nodding his approval as we clasped hands resting on the mattress between us. The same routine every night before bed.

I never knew though what I was saying sorry for. I just knew that I was. Sorry. Or rather, that I was supposed to be.

I went to that other place in my head, to that little girl riding the bike-pony, that little girl playing organ and mouthing the words while everyone slept, that little girl who dreamed up fictional characters just to solve someone’s problems, even if those problems were only on the page and not in real life. I became that woman who would do anything to be quiet and I stayed her, because I had so damn much to say and none of it could ever be said.

There was so much I never said to him, so much that wasn’t appropriate to speak out loud, not then. Why was I always the one to say sorry? Why did he never apologize? What exactly was it that I was so sorry for, every night? Why was I automatically less than he was? Why did he claim so hard to follow The Bible in public but yet he never prayed a single time in private the entire duration of our marriage? How could he claim to be ruling me, controlling me, biblically when he never, ever prayed? What kind of person was he?

What kind of person was I for staying quiet, for playing the game, for never saying a word?

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Damaged Fruit

One of my only high school friends post-RED was a girl named Jennifer. We had more in common than I had with most people—for instance, we both liked superhero movies. And dogs. And…that was about it. I liked staying at her house because it made me feel normal, so I was perfectly happy to do whatever as long as we could hang.

She met a guy one day at the farmers market. He had a generic name that escapes me now, so we’ll call him Chuck. Jennifer wasn’t allowed to date, but she really wanted to get to know Chuck better. We were lying on her bed on our stomachs one night watching Ironman, and she said “Chuck has a friend named Chad. We could all, like, go to the movies or something and then it wouldn’t be a date but, like, a group?”

I raised an eyebrow. “Have you met this guy?”

“I mean,” she shrugged, “Chuck is fun? So Chad is too. Probably.”

I agreed to go to a movie with them the next day, my friend and her definitely not-boyfriend and his best friend. They picked us up in a big blue pickup truck, and what struck me first was how old they were. I was barely 17, but Chad was easily in his late 20s. Chuck had on a hat; I couldn’t get a read on him easily. It quickly became apparent that we weren’t actually going to a movie, but to dinner and bowling where we could separate and Chuck and Jennifer could do their own thing. Chad and I had been brought along as an excuse.

“Bye guys,” Chad said nonchalantly as they disappeared into the shadows. He sat across from me at our table in the bowling alley and fingered a french fry. “What now?”

I shrugged and tentatively reached for a fry from the basket, dunked it in ketchup. “I guess we could…bowl?”

“I hate bowling.”

“Me too,” he admitted. He took a long drink of his beer. “You want some?”

I nodded and took the green bottle from his outstretched hand. I held the liquid in my mouth for a second, the nasty weight of its flavor staining my tongue, before I swallowed it in one gulp.

“First beer?” he laughed.

I shook my head. No. It wasn’t. He wasn’t the first man to give me alcohol. I heard Jennifer laughing in the distance and I looked up to see her and Chuck attached at the lips in the farthest darkest lane of the bowling alley. He picked her up and sprung her around and then kissed her again.

“Do you wanna go outside?” The beer bottle made a hollow sound as he deposited it on the table.

“And do what?”

Chad tossed his head slightly so his greasy brown hair would get out of his face. “Sit in the truck? You don’t seem like you’re having much fun here.”

I wasn’t. “I guess?” I let him take my hand and lead me out to the parking lot, leaving the garbage all over our abandoned table.

He opened the tailgate of the truck and boosted me up before climbing in after me. “It’s a pretty night, huh?”

“Pretty?” I raised an eyebrow, but his lips were on mine before I could follow up the tease. I shifted slightly so my shoulder pushed against his chest, and we broke apart. “Hey now.”

“Too fast?”

I pictured Jennifer in the bowling alley being spung around, held, kissed. “Too slow.” I grabbed Chad’s shirt and steered him back towards me; my lips found his, tentatively at first and then more certain. Harder. I let him shove his tongue in my mouth but didn’t reciprocate, waited, analyzed, tried to find my opening. Lost in thought, I didn’t realize he was spinning me to be against the back window of the cab until I was trapped there and he was unbuttoning his pants. I broke my lips off his. “Stop.”

He kept going, his pants open, his state of readiness clearly visible.

“STOP,” I cried, louder, shoving him away.

“What? What happened?” He tried again to kiss me, but I turned my head and his lips glanced against my cheek. I pushed him off and struggled to my knees. “What the actual fuck?” He wrestled his pants back up. “Wait are you CRYING? What the fuck?”

I fumbled with the tailgate before giving up and hopping over to the ground. I touched my cheek. I was crying. When had I started doing that? I never cried. He was just another man, right? Right?

“Come on,” he called from above me, “what the fuck is this? Let’s just try again or something, don’t be dumb.”

I pulled my sweater tighter around me and walked across the parking lot, turned onto the dark country highway and walked along the shoulder back to Jennifer’s house, to my car. He didn’t follow. I cried quietly, the only sound the gravel I kicked up with my shoes. I can’t, I thought. I won’t ever be able to. I’m the damaged fucking peach and I need to go back to my god damn tree.

That was the last time Jennifer and I really hung out.

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What I Didn’t Say

I had never been to the baseball diamond in our town before. It was a night right before our wedding, and reaching backwards in memory, it occurred to me that I hadn’t been on any baseball diamond. Except for one time, in seventh grade…

His hand was in my pants.

In seventh grade, my gym teacher tried to teach our class how to play baseball. I couldn’t get past learning how to grip the bat, and I never hit the ball that year, no matter how hard I tried. I was that kid nobody wanted on their team; I was the one who got booed every time I went up to the plate.

He wanted me. His hand was in my pants, and I didn’t know what to do, and all I could think about was standing on that baseball field in seventh grade. He felt his way inside of my underwear. Yes? No? Other? I didn’t know what to say. I never knew what to say.

The more I got booed in gym class, the less I wanted to play. I sat on the bench behind home plate, and I cried because I knew my turn was coming and I would have to do what was expected of me, but I didn’t know what that was.

One finger grazed my skin, pressing down, and it hurt. I wondered offhandedly if it was supposed to. I did not say yes, but I did not say no. Was there something wrong with me? Had my childhood irrevocably fucked me up in terms of liking sex?

No, I knew what to do, I just wasn’t an athlete. Stand behind the plate. Plant my feet. Grip the bat, not too tight, not too loose. Swing. Hit. Run. I knew what to do, but I couldn’t do it.

He wanted to touch me, but I had no interest in touching him. I became certain that I was broken. I did not say yes, but I did not say no. I didn’t know I could say no.

I wanted my classmates to like me, but I wasn’t good enough and I never would be. I gave up. I took detention after detention rather than go up to that plate. I almost failed gym. I didn’t care.

“Why don’t you ever do it back?” he asked quietly. “Don’t you like me that way?”

I didn’t know what to say; if this was how love worked, I wasn’t sure I loved him back. But I needed to. I needed him to stay. So I did not say yes, but I also did not say no.

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The Hardest Thing

I did all the right things after I was raped. I drove myself to the hospital; I had a rape kit done. I tried to file charges. To this day, I don’t know how I did those things. Blind courage? A desperate carnal need to survive? To win, for once? It was not the first time I’d been raped; it was the first time I’d tried to fight back. It was the hardest thing I’d ever done, and I lost.

Two days later, I returned to my regularly scheduled life, already in progress. I spent the day hidden behind a curtain of hair and a ratty gray sweatshirt hood. I thought that everybody knew, that everybody could see me. I didn’t want them to see me. I didn’t want anyone to see me. Yet I wanted to scream it, I wanted one person to hear me, truly hear me, to understand. I wanted to know I wasn’t alone, I wanted someone to tell me it would be okay, that I didn’t have to cut it, cut him, out of me. 

But I screamed nothing. I said nothing. I was nothing. No one would ever understand; no one would ever feel the magnitude of the weight I was carrying.

A friend put a notebook and a pen in my lap. She looked at me, tried unsuccessfully to hide her tears, and told me to write it out.

Write it out.

I had never written much by way of nonfiction before then; I didn’t think it was a craft I could master. I’d written stories, sure, but all fiction. Writing about myself, my real self, was different. I found myself there, again, with that paper and pen. I made a decision to cry my tears and then stuff them inside and not talk about it, but I wrote about it. No one would hear me, but I knew that people would read. For me, writing was talking. In many ways, it still is. But I found it hard to write, to say, rape. It’s such a powerful word. I’d see it and my hands would start to shake. My breath would grow stuttered. My body would grow cold.

But rape is just a word. A noun. I decided to look it up, to take it back. To make it mine, in the only way I could–by writing it down. Webster Dictionary has several definitions for said noun, including:

  1. Unlawful sexual activity and usually sexual intercourse carried out forcibly or under threat of injury against a person’s will
  2. An outrageous violation
  3. An act or instance of robbing or carrying away a person by force

Rape is also a verb.

  1. To commit rape on
  2. To seize and take away by force.

And at its best, an agricultural term:

  1. An Old World herb of the mustard family
  2. A plant related to mustard that is grown for animals to graze on
  3. Rapeseed; bird food
  4. The pomace of grapes left after expression of the juice

That last definition is my favorite; the idea that the use of the word rape as a sexual assault term came from the concept of squeezing a grape so hard that you force the literal guts out of it.

The grape didn’t ask to be raped.

I didn’t either.

Once upon a time, I wrote a story about a coyote and a little woodland creature. A rabbit, maybe? I can’t find it now, but it was your basic fairytale–the rabbit happily ran through the forest with all of its rabbit friends, oblivious of the existence of the coyote. The coyote loved the rabbit, so he followed it everywhere, always careful to stay at a distance. One day, the coyote tried to eat the rabbit. The rabbit got away, survived, but it always remembered what the coyote howled after the rabbit jumped from its gaping maw: Say nothing. Trust no one.

It’s obvious. The coyote is my rapist, and the rabbit is me. But I couldn’t say that then. I can say it now. Because rape? It’s a verb, it’s a noun, it’s a thing that happened to me, but not a thing I asked for. Not a thing I deserved.

I have written so many pages of material on being raped, about rape, about surviving. I will never grow tired of writing about it, because I think that the issue needs to be talked about. The most important thing I’ve learned through my writing is that I need to make myself show up. Not just be physically present, but really show up, let my walls down, present myself, my story, with no apologies, and be there to be with it. To sit with it. To own it. Because that’s the most important part of my experience–not how well I write it, but how well I own it. How well I use it to help others over feeling sorry for myself.

Every time I’ve kept silent, hidden myself, my story, every time I tell myself I’m not worth as much as other people, every time I think about giving up, I am giving my attacker what he wanted all along. I am letting him own me. I am letting him win. It’s important, I think, to own the word and therefore the experience, to draw the map of that violation on our bodies, to write and speak our stories to reach others who share our stories so that we all know that we aren’t alone.

We aren’t alone.

I learned that being abused was normal. I learned that my attacker had the power, that I had none of it. But the word rape belongs to me now, and I own the power over all of these experiences. Someone important to me told me today: “We have to wrap them up and store them and start over. Consider it like moving. When you move from one place to another, you pack up what you need and want to take with you and leave the rummage behind for the pickers. LEAVE IT BEHIND. It is a mental choice to move forward, and it is the hardest thing you will do.”

It took me a long time to find one person who truly understood who I was, what I’d been through. One person who I could be myself with, no apologies. I found that friendship through writing. I kept writing, and suddenly I had two people. Two people who understood. And then more. I don’t know where I’d be without them now, and I wish that everybody could have this. A safe space. People to talk to, that they trust. This week, I stopped using my pen name. I started being myself. I wrote my experience, I owned my experience. I put my name on that experience and I sat with it and proudly said, “Yes, this happened to me. And I survived it.”

I want to create that safe space, here. Together, we write. This is how we speak. And as we speak, we pack things up. We command them, we control them, we bend and shape them to our will, and no one else’s. And then, emotionally, we leave them behind. We write, we move forward. It is a mental choice, to move forward, and it is the hardest thing we will ever do.

 

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